Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is a unique voice in the American canon-a writer whose works are hard to categorize, often straddling the space between literature and science fiction, and filled with cutting satire and dark humor. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut's reputation and impact on American writing and reading will continue to grow steadily and increase in relevance as new insights are made.

Vonnegut was born in 1922 in Indianapolis, and studied at the University of Chicago and the University of Tennessee. In the Second World War, he became a German prisoner of war and was present during the bombing of Dresden. This experience provided inspiration for his most successful and influential novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut-admired as much for his views and his "Vonnegutisms" as for his publications-wrote extensively in many forms, including novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, and correspondence, some of which was published posthumously.

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Player Piano

Player Piano (1952), Vonnegut’s first novel, embeds and foreshadows themes which are to be parsed and dramatized by academians for centuries to come. His future society--a marginal extrapolation, Vonnegut wrote, of the situation he observed as an employee of General Electric in which machines were replacing people increasingly and without any regard for their fate--is mechanistic and cruel, indifferent to human consequence, almost in a state of merriment as human wreckage accumulates. Paul Proteus, the novel’s protagonist, is an engineer at Ilium Works and first observes with horror and then struggles to reverse the displacement of human labor by machines.

Ilium Works and Paul’s struggles are a deliberately cartoon version of labor’s historic and escalating struggle to give dignity and purpose to workers. The novel embodies all of Vonenegut’s concerns and what he takes to be the great dilemma of the technologically overpowered century: the spiritual needs of the population in no way serve the economies of technology and post-technology. Vonnegut overlies this grotesque comedy over tragedy, disguising his novel in the trappings of goofiness.

Not published--at Vonnegut’s insistence--as science fiction, the novel was nonetheless recognized and praised by the science fiction community which understood it far better than a more general readership, a dilemma which Vonnegut resentfully faced throughout his career. Bernard Wolfe’s dystopian Limbo and Player Pianowere published in the same year to roughly similar receptions; two "outsiders" had apotheosized technophobia as forcefully as any writer within the field. Throughout his career, Vonnegut was forced to struggle with his ambivalence about science fiction and his own equivocal relationship with its readers.

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Selected Works of Kurt Vonnegut

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The Selected Works of Kurt Vonnegut is a collection of noteworthy science-fiction titles penned by a beloved American author. Considered by most to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, Kurt Vonnegut’s works offers profound insight into the human condition with words of charm and wit steeped in the rhythms of the everyday and in the extraordinary.
This collection includes two of his acclaimed novels, Cat’s Cradle and Galapagos, rounded off by two short stories, The Big Trip Up Yonder and Unready to Wear. In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut’s fourth novel published in 1963 that explores themes including religion, technology and science with a satirical eye. Galapagos is Vonnegut's meditation on Darwinism, fate, and the essential irrelevance of the human condition. In The Big Trip Up Yonder, Kurt Vonnegut asks what would happen to human society if there was no death? In Kurt Vonnegut’s world, immortality isn’t exactly the gift it’s cracked up to be. Unready to Wear takes readers to the far future, where humanity has evolved to the point that the "spirit" can transcend the body. But there’s a cultural backlash from those who want to return to the body—and believe the spirit should stay there.

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Cat's Cradle

Cat’s Cradle (1963) is Vonnegut’s most ambitious novel, which put into the language terms like "wampeter", "kerass" and "granfalloon" as well as a structured religion, Boskonism and was submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for a Master’s Degree in anthropology, and in its sprawling compass and almost uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) invention, may be Vonnegut’s best novel.

Written contemporaneously with the Cuban missile crisis and countenancing a version of a world in the grasp of magnified human stupidity, the novel is centered on Felix Hoenikker, a chemical scientist reminiscent of Robert Oppenheimer… except that Oppenheimer was destroyed by his conscience and Hoenikker, delighting in the disastrous chemicals he has invented, has no conscience at all. Hoenikker’s "Ice 9" has the potential to convert all liquid to inert ice and thus destroy human existence; he is exiled to a remote island where Boskonism has enlisted all of its inhabitants and where religion and technology collaborate, with the help of a large cast of characters, to destroy civilization.

Vonnegut’s compassion and despair are expressed here through his grotesque elaboration of character and situation and also through his created religion which like Flannery O’Connor’s "Church Without Christ" (in Wise Blood) acts to serve its adherents by removing them from individual responsibility. Vonnegut had always been taken seriously by science fiction readers and critics (a reception which indeed made him uncomfortable) but it was with Cat’s Cradle that he began to be found and appreciated by a more general audience. His own ambivalence toward science, science fiction, religion and religious comfort comes through in every scene of this novel.

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Kurt Vonnegut